Face masks are being part of many people’s daily lives around the world during the pandemic. Many are made from plastics and designed to be used just once, which means thousands of tonnes of extra waste going to landfill and being a source of harmful microplastic fibres on land and in waterways and litter.
This global health crisis puts extra pressure on regular waste management practices, leading to inappropriate management strategies, including mobile incineration, direct landfills, and local burnings. Improper disposal of just 1% of face masks translates to more than 10 million items, weighing 30,000 to 40,000 kg
When it comes to face masks, the three common types are cloth, surgical and N-95. N-95 masks offer the highest level of protection, blocking about 95% of airborne particles. Cloth masks are designed to be used more than once, while surgical and N-95 masks are usually intended for single use.
Face masks may consist of one or more layers, each with different functions:
An outermost layer, designed to repel liquids such as water
The innermost layer, which absorbs moisture and allows comfort and breathability
A non-absorbent middle layer, to filter particles.
Each type of mask is made of different materials and used in varying settings
Designing for a healthier environment
It’s important to note that any attempt to redesign face masks must ensure they offer adequate protection to the wearer. Where masks are used in a medical setting, design changes must also meet official standards such as barrier efficiency, breathing capacity and fire resistance.
With this in mind, reducing the environmental harm caused by masks could be done in several ways:
Design with more reusable parts
Make masks easier to dispose of or recycle
Use biodegradable materials
Which mask should you choose?
From a purely environmental perspective, research suggests owning multiple reusable face masks, and machine-washing them together, is the best option. But when choosing a mask, consider where you will wear it. Unless cloth masks are shown to be as effective as other masks, health-care workers should not use them. But they may be suitable in low-risk everyday settings.
In the longer term, governments and manufacturers must make every effort to design masks that will not harm the planet – and consumers should demand this. Face masks will probably be ubiquitous on our streets for months to come. But once the pandemic is over, the environmental legacy may last for decades, if not centuries.